Men forced to rape family members in Ethiopia's Tigray, U.N. says

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The United Nations logo is seen on a window in an empty hallway at United Nations headquarters during the 75th annual U.N. General Assembly high-level debate, which is being held mostly virtually due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in New York, U.S., September 21, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEW YORK, March 25 (Reuters) - More than 500 rape cases have been reported to five clinics in Ethiopia's Tigray region, the United Nations said on Thursday, warning that the actual numbers might be far higher.

"Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence," Wafaa Said, deputy U.N. aid coordinator in Ethiopia, said in a briefing to U.N. member states in New York.

She said at least 516 rape cases had been reported by five medical facilities in Mekelle, Adigrat, Wukro, Shire and Axum.

"Given the fact that most health facilities are not functioning and also the stigma associated with rape, it is projected that actual numbers are much higher," she added.

Ethiopia's U.N. ambassador, Taye Atskeselassie Amde, told Reuters his government took the allegations of sexual violence "very seriously" and had deployed a fact-finding mission.

"Ethiopia has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual crimes and anyone found responsible for the despicable acts will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law," he said.

Dozens of witnesses in Tigray have told Reuters that soldiers from neighbouring Eritrea routinely killed civilians, gang-raped and tortured women and looted households and crops during the conflict.

Eritrea's Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel, responding in general terms to the U.N. briefing, said on Friday that sexual violence and rape "are an abomination to Eritrean society" and should be harshly punished if they occurred.

Eritrea has repeatedly denied its troops were in Tigray, although Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday acknowledged Eritrean troops were present in the region.

A dozen top U.N. officials called on Monday for an end to indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians in Tigray, particularly calling out reports of rape and "other horrific forms of sexual violence." read more

Fighting in Tigray broke out in November between government troops and the region's former ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front. read more

The violence in Tigray has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes in the mountainous region of about 5 million.

The United Nations has raised concerns about atrocities, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described acts carried out as ethnic cleansing. Ethiopia rejected Blinken's allegation. read more

Abiy on Tuesday acknowledged for the first time that atrocities such as rape had been committed and said any soldiers committing crimes would be punished.

Additional reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom; Editing by David Gregorio

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